We often think of bereavement in terms of deep melancholy or gentle sadness, but "grief behaves badly and grief is risk-taking", says Sophie Ratcliffe, Oxford literary critic and author of the memoir The Lost Properties of Love. Here, she recommends five books that may act as a balm for those who have lost someone, and says that the act of reading—any book, any poem—can be consoling.
Let’s start by discussing how you selected your five choices on grief.
This was a challenging brief, because whatever one chooses, it’s going to be a really personal selection. Grief takes many forms, but I was drawn to and wanted to highlight the unexpectedness and the multifaceted-ness of grief. ‘Grief’ can bring to mind melancholy or gentle sadness, but I’m interested in the risk-taking, badly-behaving, traumatized, hedonistic, heady forms of grief as well as the desolate ones. It’s not only difficult to find five books that’ll capture that—it’s also hard to choose five for anyone who’s come looking for a book about grief that will chime with precisely what they’re feeling.
Is grief an emotion? Is it a state of being? Is it a story? How far is it shaped by the stories we’ve read? Is it something that is performed? Perhaps stories about grief are so interesting because they show us how grief is something we step into. We learn how to grieve, and learn how grief changes over time.
You’ve written about the loss of your father as a teenager in your recent memoir, The Lost Properties of Love. Could you talk a little bit about your experience of grief, and how you approached writing about it?
When people ask me, ‘So what’s your book about?’ I think of the stereotypical image of an author shuffling back and forth on one foot, muttering, ‘Oh, it’s difficult to put in any one genre.’ But I genuinely find it quite difficult. The Lost Properties of Love is a book about grief, but it’s also a book about love. The porous nature of grief is absolutely central. I decided to not only write a grief memoir about the loss of my father, but also a book about my marriage and past loves. This was a deliberate choice: I don’t see how one can untangle the experience of loss from how one builds a family in the future.
“Is grief an emotion? Is it a state of being? Is it a story? How far is it shaped by the stories we’ve read?”
The narratives that grief makes us tell and shape are really fascinating. For me, the loss of my father somehow made me make certain decisions about time. My father died at 45, and with that loss, and grief—and the trauma of it all—I think I must have subconsciously decided that I was going to try to use as much of my own time as possible until reaching that age to experience as much as possible. (For me, loss played into some risk-taking behavior, teenage promiscuity and the like).
That desire for experience also sharpened my relationship with pragmatics: the practical necessity of choosing one kind of life. There’s always this sense of multiple lives—that there were multiple routes I could have gone down. When I did choose to be part of a happy family, there was an impulse to destabilize it, to try to live another life or multiple lives again. I don’t think this is uncommon, and I don’t think it’s discrete to people who have experienced bereavement. But in my own story, family loss and family-making were wrapped up in each other.
A friend told me I’ve invented a new genre, the ‘screwball tragicomedy’, which I quite like. [Laughs.] There are laughs in all of the books I’ve chosen, too: Max Porter is extraordinarily funny, as is Kathryn Mannix about the everydayness of her role. But The Lost Properties of Love is certainly at the borderline of tragedy and comedy, grief and laughter. I open the book by talking about the day my father died. I woke that morning, stood up and started trying to work out what I should wear. Maybe you could put this down to shock, but I thought, ‘What do you wear on the day your father dies? What’s the appropriate outfit? Or, not even appropriate—what would make me look good?’
“Those who are grief-stricken do not always behave well”
Those who are grief-stricken do not always behave well. Just as the dying person is not necessarily deserving of beatification, sometimes the behavior of the grief-stricken person modulates and fluctuates. Sometimes it’s agony. Sometimes it’s much more concerned about how they’re feeling or looking than with missing someone. And I was always haunted and concerned by the fact that I was not grieving properly—that I was not feeling enough, or I was not feeling in the right way.
This reminds me of a passage in BoughDown (2013), a memoir by David Foster Wallace’s widow, Karen Green. At one point a pharmacist admonishes her for forgetting to call her doctor for an antidepressant prescription refill. She writes, “Freckled thing, don’t fuck with the psych patients. I would like to threaten her sanity, her grade point average, her place in the world. I could buckle her floor.” Grief can manifest in rage toward others. It can be angry; it can be messy.
Yes. The messiness and hilarity of grief can be provocative; it can be uncontrollable. That isn’t a hidden story, but I think it is shrouded in our discourse, which associates ‘grief’ with a kind of gentle sadness. Perhaps the seeming callousness of me trying to sort out the appropriate capsule wardrobe for hospice corpse-viewing was a way of dissociating from the reality of my father’s death, but actually, the reality wasn’t very real to me.
I didn’t know what it was like to have a dead father. I probably didn’t know further about what it’s like until two years later, or 10 years later. I probably have a new realization of what it’s like to have a dead father now I’m a mother, watching my husband with my daughter. And I have a new revelation about it now that I’m approaching the same age my father was when he died. So I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what grief is like—it changes.
How did literature help, or provide solace?
For me, reading was always a very resistant act. In my house, it was something you could do, an approved and legislated activity, so as not to commune with other people. My father was ill for a long time; mine was a house which, through absolutely no one’s fault, had a sense of impending grief and sadness in it. Reading allowed me to shut that out. My first relationship with literature was not so much as consolation, but as an escape. It was something I could wrap around myself. Any book could be consoling in relation to grief, purely by taking me away from what I didn’t want to face.
“My first relationship with literature was not so much as consolation, but as an escape. It was something I could wrap around myself”
We’re going to discuss several books about grief, which is interesting because I think that quite often what you’re after—when you’re in a state of grief—might be anything but a selection like this. [Laughs.] The act of reading is consoling. The subject matter doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not about what you’re in.
Let’s start with Max Porter, who we’ve interviewed for Five Books. Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (2015) is a very unusual little book: it’s about a father recently bereaved by his wife. Why did you pick it?
I was aware of this book for years before I read it, because I knew that it was about two children who’ve lost their mother. As someone who had been bereaved as a child, I actually thought I’d find it too unbearably sad to read. I was also writing a book about grief myself, and didn’t want to read it in case I became entwined with it or accidentally ended up borrowing something from it. I didn’t think I could confront that subject in this form, but had a sense that the book was probably going to be brilliant. And it is.
What struck me about Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is the way in which grief is embodied. In Max Porter’s novel or novel-poem, grief becomes ‘Crow’, who descends upon this family. He’s variously a babysitter, a friend, a ghost, a terrorizer. He impersonates a mother; he’s a joker; he’s twisted. He causes chaos. That’s what it captures: the absolute unpredictability, and nastiness, and then sudden benevolence of grief. The theatricality of what can happen to a person, to a household, after a bereavement.
Writing from the perspective of the bereaved child is completely unique among the books you’ve chosen. Bits are just heartbreaking: “We […] understood that this was a new life / and Dad was a different type of Dad now / and we were different boys, we were brave / new boys without a Mum.”
Like some of my other choices, this book captures how very different the experience of grief is for different people—in an environment, a family network, or a friendship group. By depicting the young boys’ perspective, switching to the father’s perspective and back again, he brilliantly captures moments when—while only one person has died—everyone has lost a different person. And it’s utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful in the place where it finishes.
Because it’s a poem as well as a novel, it leaves spaces. Porter uses the spaces of the book so that you feel you can insert yourself in it. But I did, as I feared, find it extremely tough to read.
I also noticed that there are several lists in Grief Is the Thing With Feathers and a few in your own memoir, too. Porter writes, “The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers.” What is it about the list form that’s so poignant? Is it about gathering or attempting to collect lost things?
I think it’s the primary narrative form of how a poem begins, if you can do very little else: an incantation, a collection, a gathering together and a form of composure. I was also just thinking about a devastating bit in this book from the boys, that evokes this powerful sense of a robbed future:
We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test.
We used to think she could see us through mirrors.
We used to think she was an undercover agent, sending Dad money, asking for updates.
We were careful to age her, never trap her. Careful to name her Granny, when Dad became Grandpa.
We hope she likes us.
My voice is catching just talking about it. When I was writing my own book, I thought about how grief just sort of turns up. It’s enormously difficult to talk about because it’s a strange temporal state—it’s past, present, future. The sense the person gone is somehow overseeing what’s happening is a very simple thought, but it matters a great deal. Porter completely captures that sentiment with the line “I hope she likes us.”
This book is also largely about the inseparability of grief and parenthood. What is fatherhood like for this widower? Does grief shift one’s sense of self as a parent?
I think grief does shift one’s sense of roles. Crow is shape-changing, but so is the dad, and so are the boys. The boys are looking after the dad, and the house in itself becomes a kind of masquerade. Metamorphosis is central; selfhood isn’t stable. These are interesting—and real—repercussions about what actually happens in a grieving family. Porter is very clear that although the experience of his novel is based on the death of his own father, who died when he was six, that this is not about him. But one can’t help thinking, coming from a household which has lost a parent, that what happens is a sense that at the table, there’s always an empty space, but at the same time, grief requires people to change shape. To suddenly have to be other things.
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I can’t speak for what it’s like to be a parent who’s lost a partner, but Porter plays it very beautifully. Bereaved children may feel at times that they have to be parents, and parents may feel that they need to be children. What one is also grieving for is the clarity afforded by the neatly-designated roles of a happy family. Hence Crow is kind of like an au pair, stepping in to play those roles.
Porter also gives a sense of the timelessness of grief later in the book, when the question of how to move on comes up. ‘Dad’ has his first sexual encounter since the death of his wife; he describes bringing a woman home and being painfully aware during intimacy that they’re surrounded by all his wife’s old possessions and memories.
All the while, Crow’s doing impersonations in the background. It raises an interesting question: what do we do with desire in the realm of grief? Where and how does it play out? I said earlier that grief behaves badly and grief is risk-taking. Among the taboos we have when talking about grief—that it may drive people to drink or other forms of risk-taking—I’ve always been fascinated by the way it can drive people towards desire, or appetite.
That’s something you write about in your memoir, as well.
Yes. We don’t talk about it enough, though it’s tracked in medical journals. In this case, I don’t think the father in Max Porter’s book is particularly desirous. [Laughs]. He doesn’t do anything outrageous; he just gets a new girlfriend. But the question remains: where does sex lie in relation to grief?
Next, we have Broken Hierarchies (2013), the collected poems of the late Geoffrey Hill, Oxford’s last Professor of Poetry before Simon Armitage. Why did you choose this hefty tome?
Geoffrey Hill’s enormous oeuvre stands in for any poetry anthology anyone in the midst of grief might feel like turning to. The repetitive act of reading—curative reading—has a very long history, and still today many faced with the prospect of a funeral (or its aftermath) find themselves with a need to read poetry. In terms of what one can manage to process or cope with in times of grief, the shorter the better, sometimes. So, its rhythmic consolation and its brevity are why I’d say to any grieving person, ‘Maybe try some poetry?’.
Personally, the trajectory of how I coped—or did not cope—with the loss of my father had a number of points. One of them was just pretending I was fine all the time. Another occurred when I left home and went to university. I became overwhelmingly sad all the time, as in crying every day, and clinically depressed. I stopped reading entirely, which is kind of tough when you’re studying English. [Laughs.] So I left university for a time to try to recover. The doctor I saw used to check in with me and say, ‘Are you eating?’ And at the beginning I said, ‘No’. ‘Are you reading?’ ‘No’.
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But at one point I picked up a copy of Geoffrey Hill’s poems and flicked through it. (I’d looked at it before, and even when I was reading, I hadn’t understood a word.) I opened it up to his sequence of poems called ‘Funeral Music’ (1994). I remember exactly where I was sitting on my bed in Finchley. I remember thinking, ‘Funeral music—that seems possibly congruent with how I’m feeling.’ For reasons unknown, I turned to the eighth poem (it’s a series of eight sonnets) and read the poem. I didn’t quite understand it, so I read it again. And again. It’s a poem about some people who died during the Wars of the Roses. But I didn’t know that—didn’t read the footnote, didn’t care. To me, it seemed to be from the voices of ghosts:
Not as we are but as we must appear,
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy:
I looked at that and suddenly started to think about my father, about the way we project or reimagine those we’ve lost. In the poem, the ghosts are pissed off about being misremembered, over-remembered, or remembered in distortion—‘as they would have us live’. It finishes with a wail of anger where the one of the figures we’re imagining is being “Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place, / Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.” It’s utterly beautiful and it’s difficult: difficult enough to have kept me occupied trying to figure it out like a crossword puzzle.
I probably started studying English because of a difficult but consoling poem by John Donne. I’d say this one by Geoffrey Hill is one of the two poems that has made a dramatic difference in my ability to align myself with, or relate to, terrible sorrow.
“It’s utterly beautiful and it’s difficult: difficult enough to have kept me occupied trying to figure it out like a crossword puzzle”
The late Geoffrey Hill is not the sort of person you’d expect to appreciate one saying ‘Your poem saved my life’, but he actually took it very well when I said it. Though any volume of poetry may be a balm for sadness, I would say that Geoffrey Hill is an extraordinary poet of broken love and grief. (He is a great lover of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry—which makes me think of that extraordinary poem ‘Spring and Fall’. It begins with an address to Margaret, asking her what she is grieving for ‘O Margaret are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?’, and ends with the words ‘It is Margaret you mourn for.’ Full circle. Grief turns on itself.) He’s also written a beautiful poem called ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’.
Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work (1995) is one of the best memoirs on life, love and dying I’ve ever read, and Hill’s ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’ is similarly beautiful, intricate and dense. But Hill is more often described as a ‘difficult’ poet than a poet of broken love, something I was going to ask you about. I’m struck by how you’ve put it just now: that his poems are just difficult enough to keep your brain occupied.
They are difficult, but I have the airy carelessness of a person who feels it’s okay to own and love a volume of poetry in which you might have only hooked into one poem and read it many times. I don’t understand half of ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’, but what I do understand is precious, and I know that I’ll return to it. The patience that difficult poetry requires can keep us occupied through difficult periods. It’s the type of patience that grief requires, too: the conviction that I will keep going over it; I have to keep going over it. Some of it will become clearer, and sometimes it’ll just stay un-stuck.
Hill is thinking about a different kind of love than the love Rose writes about in Love’s Work. He says, “In broken love you read the signs too late / although they are met with everywhere / like postcards of Manet and Monet, Van Gogh’s shoes.” The poem gives the faint idea they might have had a love affair, but you’re left without the truth. It makes you wonder: What’s the relationship between these two?
When a line of Geoffrey Hill touches me, it really, really touches me, but I can hardly decipher the rest. But perhaps that’s a bit like grief: elements of the experience remain incommunicable and indecipherable to the sufferer, let alone anyone else.
There are also different textures of grief. There’s the grief of someone who’s encountered a long illness: you know that their death is coming, even if you don’t know what that death will be like. But there’s also the grief of losing someone who drops off the face of the world. All of a sudden. I experienced that while writing The Lost Properties of Love; I lost a dear friend. They died at fifty of a massive heart attack. And I thought, I’ve missed it. I’ve missed the fucking chance to tell them this, or go there with that, or I didn’t make the most of our last meeting, or I hung up the phone too early. Hill beautifully captures that grief for a missed opportunity: “In broken love we read the signs too late.” That sense that it was all there; it just never came to fruition.
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Having never encountered the grief of sudden loss before (and having now, well, not come through it, but experienced it), I have a renewed awe for anyone who has managed to get through that kind of shock. The shock of the person being there today, gone tomorrow. It’s the kind of shock you find Tennyson working through in In Memoriam. Unlike grief you anticipate, you’ve had no opportunity to work through it beforehand, no narrative to build around it. You’re just left on the floor, utterly removed. The poetics of that are very interesting: trying to build something in thin air, or going round and round in circles. It’s a way of replaying trauma.
Your next choice is Late Fragments: Everything I Want To Tell You (About This Magnificent Life). The author Kate Gross died of cancer on Christmas Day a few years ago, leaving behind two five-year-old boys. This book begins when she’s diagnosed but it’s not a typical cancer memoir by any stretch of the imagination. It actually reads a bit like a love letter to the family she’s leaving behind. Tell us a bit about why you chose it.
Oh, God. I’m going to start crying before I even start talking about this one. You know, I can’t remember why I started reading this book, which is unusual, because usually I can recall how I come to books very clearly. All I remember is I started reading Late Fragments, and when I’d finished it, I was still standing in the kitchen, same place as I started, having done practically nothing but eat toast the whole day.
“Kate Gross is grieving in advance for what she will not have: the life she will not have with her children”
We’ve thought about grief from the perspective of the bereaved child and the bereaved parent with Porter and Hill, about how grief is crystallized in objects or things, how one can compose it. By contrast, Kate Gross is grieving in advance for what she will not have: the life she will not have with her children, what she’s going to miss. It’s incredibly moving, but also extraordinarily uplifting and powerful. The book is addressed to her children, and the rest of us are eavesdropping on it. She says:
There are two copies of this book that matter. There are two pairs of eyes I imagine reading every word. There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say.
The subtitle—‘Everything I Want To Tell You About This Magnificent Life’—is a message to them about what she has loved about life and how one should live it.
As I’ve just described it, it sounds extraordinarily platitudinous. But the book is honest, and delightfully brave, about why she’s spending her time writing when she could be with her children. It’s also clear-eyed and unsentimental about the fact that people who are dying are just people. She hasn’t suddenly turned into some extraordinary saint. It’s very easy to sanctify and beatify those we’ve lost.
After an undergraduate degree in English, Gross had gone on to a career in politics and NGO work. Through her diagnosis, Gross discovers that actually, she really likes writing; she loves putting words together and remembering what she’s loved reading. So she starts to leave this testament of what she’s learned about being alive and in the act of writing, she finds herself. It’s a little frustrating, actually. You see her asking herself, ‘Why have I left it until this moment to do the thing that I most love doing?’ Hers is an extraordinary book with a message, from approaching and beyond the grave: just do it, folks. In that sense, it reminds me of the gift of grief. The positive side.
She writes about that, too: “But disease gives as well as it takes. Or, more accurately, we take from it even in the face of its efforts to take everything from us.” Somehow, these ‘seize the day’ messages never sound cliché or hollow. Maybe it’s the stark reality of her situation, or the book’s impassioned, earnest tone—probably both—but it never comes off like what she explicitly says she doesn’t want it to be, a ‘Livestrong’ message.
And it’s not. The book is steeped in the particular detail of what, for her, a full life is—or what for her the really magnificent things in life are. That sense of mattering is a gift received through these pages.
The gift of experiencing bereavement early on in life, what you win or gain, is the knowledge that you might as well just do things. Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself here, but one of the gifts of my own childhood bereavement was that sense of, ‘Yeah, I’m going to try this, I’m going to take this risk, I’m going to fight my way through.’ I remember reading ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ by Dylan Thomas and liking its rage, but maybe I prefer the power of the ‘carpe diem’ message over outrage. Kate Gross’s book finishes less with ‘Fuck you’ than ‘Sing, everyone.’ The editor of my book also edited Kate Gross. She briefly told me about how Kate sent final bits of the manuscript from her hospital bed, wanting critique and editing, fighting the book through. I mean, God! I knew I was going to be emotional, but I have such respect for this woman.
I also haven’t found anyone who hasn’t loved it when they’ve read it—though some have slightly admonished me for suggesting they read it, because once you start, you have to carry on, and it leaves you crying.
It’s just beautiful. “These last months have seen a flurry of reverse-nesting, home-making for the dying, as I prepare the house for an eternity without me, as if looking down from the afterlife and seeing stained old carpets and a crumbling bathroom would eternally shame me when their friends come round to play.” It’s equal parts funny and devastating.
And unembarrassable, as well. She talks very frankly and usefully about how, really, she had a bit of a ‘dodgy bottom’, and put off going to the doctor (she died of a form of bowel cancer). There’s a nice health message for us all there—don’t die of embarrassment—but she’s also unembarrassable in the sense of taking a gritty, messy, rambunctious, funny approach to grief. If we consider a smooth, Keatsian image of grief as dejection—this is not like that.
This book is also chosen for the cheat factor: it has an amazing bibliography at the back. She mentions Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which is amazing. She talks about Carver, Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye (1998), and John Diamond’s C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too (1998). I’ve read them all. And might add in a few more. But you have to be careful. You’re usually wiped out for the rest of the day after reading them, feeling pretty wobbly.
And she has a really strong message as well about the importance of reading. While dying she grapples with time by reading Eliot’s Four Quartets: “After all there is, only, the dance.” The bibliography at the end can be read in different ways: it’s quite literally a citation of the books she discusses in each chapter, but it’s also a reading list for her children—what she hopes they might read in each ‘chapter’ of their lives.
I guess that goes back to the impulse to curate a legacy. She’s put her bookshelves together. The book is over, but one can read on.
“Among the forms of grief we have, we grieve the selves we used to be”
I just opened the book to a random page and read the sentence, “What would your ten year old self think if they could see you now? Would your “cantus firmus” ring out or has it been deadened by the intervening years?” She’s written that just beautifully. Among the forms of grief we have, we grieve the selves we used to be. This book is about someone dying, but it’s also about a resurrection through that realization.
She lost herself for a time, and realizes how much time she’s lost. Next, you chose Kathryn Mannix’s With The End in Mind (2017). Tell us about it.
Kathryn Mannix is a palliative care doctor. In the introduction, she writes, “There are only two days with fewer than 24 hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookends astride our lives: one is celebrated every year yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.” With over 20 years of experience being a palliative care doctor, she set out to write a book (with the approval of the relevant ethics committee) which collects her experience of being a doctor in those final days of life.
It’s possibly the most useful book that I’ve read, in terms of grief. It’s an accretive book; she goes through death story after death story, starting with an extraordinary, striking account of being the on-call palliative care doctor going to attend a woman with very late-stage liver cancer. She’s become very agitated due to the drugs she’s been given, and experiences an almost euphoric need to just get out. She’s carried out of the house by her friends and family on a little wheelchair with beer and cigarettes. Mannix is responsible for being there while it happens: being present, holding the family together, giving her more medicine.
“There are only two days with fewer than 24 hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookends astride our lives”
This woman has what might be seen as a ‘good death’. But then we have another story about a different death, and then another. We’re told a story about someone who’s receiving treatment and then dies very suddenly. We hear accounts of a young mother dying. We hear about a man who moves from Holland to England to die. In Holland, there’s the offer of euthanasia which, while not imposed, raises important questions about who makes decisions about what quality of life is.
From the perspective of the bereaved party, I found the book intensely helpful. My father wasn’t someone who wanted to talk about dying at all. Admittedly, I was 13. Perhaps he felt I was too young. But I didn’t receive a book like Kate Gross’s. You hear of parents writing letters for their child’s every birthday, or talking to them through recording videos, but that wasn’t very big in 1988—the idea of memory boxes or any kind of legacy. Still now, I think, people have great difficulty talking about death, difficulty talking about what we know we’ll encounter. We will all lose each other at some point. It’s our bookend.
This book usefully talks about the realities of death and what it feels like from a doctor’s perspective. There’s also a good section on how some people choose to deny talking about it, and how that’s okay, too. She made sense of the experience that I had.
So it’s a bit of a handbook for all sufferers, in that sense.
It’s extremely elegant and eloquent. What struck me was the humility of it—I finished the book having half-forgotten that it was written by a doctor. It’s not driven by the idea of ‘doctor-as-hero’; she says there are midwives and ‘death-wives’. In this book, death is a natural process, and grief is one of the many processes we all follow. Whether we feel that leaving this world is a long way off or we’re in the middle of being in a caring role, there’s courage to be gathered from reading this. It’s a manual of narratives, stories that we can hold so that we have something to hold onto, and an extremely brave book.
Last, you chose I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949). I hadn’t read it until this interview, but always thought of it as a cult classic. Everyone I know who’s read it (mostly adults) speaks of it as their all-time favorite work. What’s so special about this one?
I just envy you reading Dodie Smith for the first time. This is a book that is, as you say, special to so many people. It takes us right back to the initial dilemma of choosing five books on grief: you could pick any book for consolation. But I Capture the Castle was one of the books that was extremely important to me when I found it on a shelf by accident, aged 14 or 15.
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It is a delicious, glorious, coming-of-age tale told with humor about two sisters who live in a derelict, tumble-down, ramshackle castle. They arrive there with their mother and father. Their mother has since died, the father has remarried, and, rather like Jane Austen, two brothers come and live nearby the family. The sisters—Cassandra and Rose—decide that perhaps they’ll set their sights on the men at the nearby manor, thinking maybe one of them can snag a rich husband. As the story unfolds, Rose and Simon get together, but Cassandra is really in love with Simon. A boy called Stephen who’s in love with Cassandra is lurking around in the house as well. So it’s chock full of unrequited love. If you’re a teenager desperately hoping that someone you’re desperately in love with will pay attention to you, you’ll relate to how this book asks, ‘Why does he not know that I exist?’
“We don’t just grieve the loss of a person—we can also grieve a lost love”
But when choosing these books, I thought that we don’t just grieve the loss of a person—we can also grieve a lost love. The devastation precipitated by the end of a relationship can be a real bereavement. I chose this book for its brilliant rendering of longing for a love that probably won’t happen. Smith tells the story through Cassandra writing in her diary. At the end of the book, she’s thinking about whether Simon will come back. She wonders, “But why, oh why, must Simon still love Rose? When she has so little in common with him and I have so much?” It ends beautifully:
There was mist on Midsummer Eve, mist when we drove into the dawn.
He said he would come back.
Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.
Oh man. Three ‘I love you’s’ is how Max Porter’s book ends, too.
Exactly. There are two bereaved children at the heart of this novel. Cassandra has lost her mother; Stephen, who is the son of a former servant—and a kind of foster-brother by default—is an orphan. Cassandra is, in some ways, just a child. She talks about not even really remembering the face of her mother. I don’t know whether I’d call it a ‘children’s novel.’ I’d place it alongside Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) or Wodehouse—you could read it at any age. But it has true pain right at its core: risk, pain and suffering.
Underneath the surface, it’s a novel of absolute desolation. Cassandra is in mourning without having fully realized it yet. Her desperation to be noticed is partly because she likes Simon, and partly, I think, because she’s desperate for someone to love her. Her father, too, seems to be torn up by grief. He’s trying to write this magnum opus, and has to be locked up until he comes out with his own Finnegans Wake. I didn’t pick up on this in my first reading, but actually, it’s a brilliant novel about a family in utter crisis. Not only financially, which often happens after a bereavement, but emotionally.
“Writing in the margins is sometimes the only way we can say how we feel”
You don’t quite know what role each individual is meant to be playing, no one is really talking about how they’re feeling, everyone wants to take risks they shouldn’t. This novel is often fondly remembered, but I want to highlight just how psychologically intriguing it is. At the end, it comes full circle: writing in the margins is sometimes the only way we can say how we feel.
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